31 January 2016
I was pleased to see that the Scottish Government’s (SG) ‘Strategy For Architecture and Place’ published earlier this week highlights the aim to strengthen and promote community participation in design and planning through charrettes and other participatory design methods. It struck me that ‘charrettte’ is now buzzword in the Scottish planning and design vocabulary. Is it time to demythologise and see what’s inside the ‘black box’?
Origins of Charrette
The term is thought to originate from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 19th century; the word charrette is French for ‘cart’. Then it was not unusual for student architects to continue working furiously in teams, up until a deadline, when a charrette would be wheeled among the students to pick up their work for review, while they worked to apply the finishing touches, the students were said to be working en charrette, in the cart! We could speculate on the modern equivalent?
So a ‘charrette’ is an interactive and intensive multi-disciplinary event that engages local people with specialists to develop designs for their community. It is a hands-on approach where ideas are translated into plans and drawings. The purpose of a charrette remains the same as that of its 1940’s roots, apparently when a firm of architects in Texas first thought up the idea of ‘squatting’: taking the process of putting together a masterplan into the community it affects. This was their solution to improve communication issues with their clients, stakeholders, and the community and to overcome wasting time, money, energy and creative ideas in travel to attend several discussions over a longer period. Their idea still holds true and is, if anything, even more pertinent in today’s environment of spending cuts and value for money.
Charrettes In Scotland
It’s worth summarising the recent history of the charrette in Scotland. As part of the Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative (SSCI), an initial Charrette Series was held in March 2010. Florida based, Andres Duany, Duany Plater-Zyberk, who were well known for advocating the charrette approach, were commissioned by SG to deliver week-long charrettes in Ladyfield, Dumfries; Lochgelly, Fife; and Grandhome, Aberdeen. At the same time a charrette approach was used in preparing masterplans for new settlements at Tornagrain, near Inverness by Moray Estates and for Chapleton of Elsick, south of Aberdeen by Elsick Development Company.
Building on the success of the SSCI Charrette Series, SG launched a new charrette programme in 2011-12 aimed at mainstreaming this approach to development within Scottish design and planning practice. Three projects were promoted namely:
- Callander: with Callander Community Council on behalf of The Callander Partnership
- Johnstone South West: with Renfrewshire Council https://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Built-Environment/AandP/Projects/SSCI/Mainstreaming/Johnstonerept
- South Carrick, Girvan: with South Ayrshire Council
The Mainstreaming programme was extended for a second year and charrette projects supporting the production of Local Development Plans took place in early 2013 were:
- Wick and Thurso: with the Highland Council to support and inform the Caithness and Sutherland Local Development Plan.
- Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park: with the National Park Authority, to support and inform the National Park Local Development Plan and focussing on the communities of Aberfoyle; Tyndrum; Drymen & Balmaha; and Arrochar, Succoth and Tarbert.
- South Wishaw: with North Lanarkshire Council to inform the North Lanarkshire Local Development Plan focussing on devising a methodology to identify genuinely effective housing sites. https://www.northlanarkshire.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=27111
There have been other charrettes organised by Highland, Fife and Dumfries and Galloway Councils
Observations Three Years On
Having used charrette type engagement processes since the 1990’s and with recent direct experience jointly facilitating the Johnstone South West and South Wishaw charrettes, I’d offer the following observations:
- The charrette approach should be set in the context of widening social engagement in governance at different levels but there is a need to distinguish consultation against genuine shared decision making for example involving negotiation.
- Independent organisation and facilitation of the charrette is crucial to establishing credibility and the choice of venue is crucial.
- The charrette provides an ideal forum for council departments, councillors, statutory agencies, stakeholders including land owners developers and residents/businesses to talk to each other.
- The process can challenge preconceptions and fixed ideas as part of exploring the spatial implications of different thematic land use issues and pace making policies.
- The charrette can really progress discussions and move to a consensus on a way forward.
- Wider ownership of solutions can emerge and in some cases typical confrontational attitudes between residents and developers can be defused.
- A charrette is a relatively quick way of generating a design solution using the skills, aptitudes and interests of a diverse group of people, although it is important to manage expectations.
While the structure of a charrette varies and depends on the place making issues and the individuals that are being targeted there has to be clarity from the outset as to the scale and target audience. It might be helpful to refer to charrrette types: mini/light (1/2 days) medium 3/4 days and full blown (5+ days).
Obviously the costs in terms of the team facilitating and the specialist skills required (e.g. urban design, regeneration, property market, transport, ground conditions, hydrology etc.) at the charrette and the individuals attending will increase with the scale of the event. Think car, model, specification and resulting price point!
Clearly engagement and empowerment is crucial to achieving relevant and high quality outcomes as part of place-making. The charrette process can play a crucial role but there is a need to be more precise about the scale, nature and target audience and therefore what’s in the ‘black box’.
Doug Wheeler, June 2013
- Background Its late January and Celtic Connections the annual winter festival is in full swing in Glasgow (300 events & 20 venues) and for the last five years this has also been charrette season in Scotl[...]